Review Essay: In The Case Of Michael Harrington

In one of the sixteen appendices to his new and intriguing book Michael Harrington notes, “In a sense, Engels went through the stages of development [in his thinking about religion] which, he and Marx thought, would be the common experience of the working class and society as a whole.” The same might be said of Michael Harrington in The Politics At God’s Funeral (Holt Rinehart Winston, 1983). He adds that Marx and Engels “were, as the text shows, wrong.” But more than a hundred pages earlier, in that text, he approvingly quotes their claim in the Communist Manifesto that capitalism “has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy waters of egotistical calculation.” Harrington comments, “They were, as often was the case, quite right about the trend but a century or so off in their timing of it. The present generation is the first to live the fullness of their prophecy as an ordinary experience.” In other words, the development of Michael Harrington and his generation has become “the common experience of the working class and society as a whole.” Or so — with deviations and inconsistencies which are to be understood as dialectical — the author would persuade us.

In a modestly brief autobiographical excursus, Harrington writes that he left the Catholic Church thirty years ago but “even though I rejected the Church, it provided me with my original idea of what religion is.” That the American Irish Catholicism of the early forties and fifties provides Harrington with his definition of religion is a critical factor in his treatment of alternative ways of being religious and of sociological efforts to address the religious phenomenon. Religion is measured by the religion he once knew and continues to reject. The death of God is the death of the God he once thought he understood and, presumably, believed in. Harrington would likely protest that statement. He insists that this book is not about ontology, it is not about whether the God “out there,” the God of his youthful rejection, does or does not exist. It is, rather, about the political death of God, the fact that the Judeo-Christian God is no longer a public actor, no longer a normative point of reference in the moral ordering of society.

His protest notwithstanding, there is an inescapable link in his argument between the question of the reality of God and the social effects of that reality. Whether or not the Judeo-Christian God is or could be again a political force depends, at least in part, on whether he is in fact what those who believe in him claim that he is. Harrington is surely right in emphasizing that religion is a social phenomenon. The believer, however, thinks that religion is not only a social phenomenon. Religion — Christianity, for instance — is a social construction in response to transcendent reality that is engaged in but not exhausted by society. As a declared atheist, Harrington of course rejects this. The God who has died, he believes, never Was to begin with. He further believes that, as more people become more educated and “enculturated” in the patterns of modernity, they will join him in his rejection of religious faith. In part Harrington is saying that education, modernity and, above all, the evils associated with “late capitalism” are bringing about this eclipse of faith. But he is also saying the recognition of the death of God, and therefore the further decline of religion as a political factor, is inevitable because it is a response to the way things ultimately are. In short, Harrington cannot separate as neatly as he wants his belief in the ontological death of God from his analysis of the political death of God. As with Engels, Harrington’s own religious development (or arrested development) is projected on “society as a whole.”

Harrington writes, “A deeply religious person could agree with everything in this book and so could those who are, like its author, atheists.” Iris a highly doubtful assertion. If Harrington’s belief with respect to God were different, it seems likely that his analysis would be different. A deeply, and thoughtfully, religious person might agree with Harrington on the declining public significance of religion, but, unlike Harrington, he would both deplore it and think it premised upon a terrible mistake. He would certainly not accept Harrington’s invitation to join him in trying to construct a moral order that is premised upon the terrible mistake’s being the truth. That is, the Christian, unlike Harrington, assumes a closer connection between morality and truth. The goal would be to persuade others of the truth which is then to inform and ground a new and more moral order. The believer might despair of achieving this (short of the Kingdom of God, and then it will not be our achievement but God’s) but he would not therefore despair of the truth. Certainly he would not consent to a program that assumes the acceptance of the almost universal denial of what he believes to be true. In saying that the believer and the atheist can agree with his analysis and program Harrington is, understandably, seeking to broaden the appeal of his crusade; it is also understandable that some believers might be reminded of the spider’s invitation to the fly.

That said, the believing Christian or Jew might agree with much of Harrington’s analysis. For example, “atheist and agnostic humanists should be as appalled by de facto atheism in late capitalist society as should people of religious faith. It is a thoughtless, normless, selfish, hedonistic individualism.” Omit the compulsive kick at capitalism, and many of us might assent to this description of where our society is headed in the absence of any cohering public values. Contra Harrington, however, it is not an accurate description of the way that Michael Harrington and millions of other Americans actually live. By all reports, and by the evidence of this book, Harrington is thoughtful, moral, caring, idealistic and concerned about human community. It is not clear why he thinks his fellow-citizens are so different from himself. He seems to believe that, with few exceptions such as himself, Americans, as the victims of an unjust “distribution system,” are mindlessly controlled by every imperative to self -gratification issued by, for instance, television commercials.

There are curious similarities between Harrington’s argument and that of conservative George Will in Statecraft as Soulcraft. Will too notes that the formal polity of America (Harrington’s “system”) is based upon individualistic self-interest and then goes on to confuse the formal polity with the way people actually live their everyday lives. Both tend to slight the fact that at the heart of the system is the intention that the political order should not encompass, and certainly should not exhaust, the entirety of what is called society. The formal polity with its restraints, limitations, checks and balances is based on self-interest, to be sure. There is very little in it that explicates a positive vision of the good life. That is because the polity assumes that most of the business of everyday living will be taken care of in communities and orders of diverse visions outside the formal polity. In American democracy, the politics of American life, in the classical sense of politics, is not limited to the formal polity. This is most emphatically true with respect to the generating and transmitting of “meanings” by which people live. The “meaning business” is, for the most part, outside the purview of the polity and its instrument, the state. When this is forgotten, public-spirited thinkers begin to call for something like a civil religion; not as full-blown as Rousseau’s, perhaps, but ample enough to make moral sense of the public order.

Critics such as Harrington and Will tend to equate politics with polity and what is public with what is govern-mental. Of course this is not simply a dispute over political theory. There are historical developments which have invited the current confusion. One such development is the increasing intervention of government into everyday life. George Will’s enthusiasm for the welfare state (“strong state conservatism”) is in important respects very different from Harrington’s proposed democratic socialism. Yet, as Harrington recognizes in the present work, the expansion of government authority — for reasons deemed conservative or radical — increases the number of “value questions” which must be addressed by government. This is joined to another historical development in American life, namely the increasing exclusion of religion and religiously-grounded values from the public arena. The result of this exclusion is what I have elsewhere described as “the naked public square.” The naked public square is a transitional phenomenon; that is, public life cannot be permanently denuded of compelling values. When the democratic values of people — which happen in America to be, for the most part, religiously grounded — are excluded, the value vacuum in the public square invites the imposition of a new system of belief and morality. Thus, in Will’s argument, must statecraft embrace responsibility for the soul. Thus, according to Harrington, must atheists, believers and others form a “united front” to construct a new moral order for the public life.

Although it suggests the way in which conservative and radical confusion can converge, the similarities between Harrington and Will should not be pressed too far. Will, after all, is a committed Christian and in his columns has frequently written very persuasively against the exclusion of religion and religiously-grounded values from public space. In their “grand” political theory (as distinct from Will’s sobriety in addressing specific issues of public controversy) both nonetheless overlook the role of what Peter Berger and I have described as the “mediating structures” in American life. In Will’s case one assumes it really is a matter of overlooking the historic public function of mediating structures such as church and family, a matter of inadvertence or unconscious inconsistency. In the case of Michael Harrington it is an enprincipled indifference to mediating structures. Enprincipled because, as a socialist, he believes society should be rationally ordered by the state, and because he is convinced that the political God is dead and therefore religion is at most a residual phenomenon without the resources needed to inform a public morality.

The resources that Harrington suggests are available will strike some as rather paltry. He hopes there are many people like himself. “I consider myself to be — in Max Weber’s phrase — ‘religiously musical’ even though I do not believe in God . . . I am what Georg Simmel called a religious nature without religion,’ a pious man of deep faith, but not in the supernatural.” Taking a snippet from Jacques Maritain, Harrington agrees that there may yet be in the modern world “a sort of common residue, a sort of unwritten common law, at the point of practical convergence of extremely different theoretical ideologies and spiritual traditions.” Reverting to George Will again, he too speaks vaguely of a kind of “natural law” which might provide the ideational stuff for a reconstructed moral consensus.

In Catholic, as distinct from sectarian, Christian traditions there has always been an understanding of something like Maritain’s unwritten common law. It is variously called natural law, the order of creation, civil righteousness, or the left hand kingdom of God’s rule. As Paul says, “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Romans 1). For Maritain — and, if pressed, no doubt for Will — this common or natural law is back-stopped by, indeed has its source in, the revealed will of God embraced by faith. For Harrington, however, the fragile moral plant is uprooted from the soil of ultimate truth. He knows that life is intolerable without the moral plant and desperately bids it to grow and multiply on its own. One suspects that he also knows that there is not a shred of historical evidence that it can do this. Admittedly, as one who has for many years put his faith in socialism that will also be democratic, Harrington is more practiced than most in holding to hopes that are defined by all available evidence.

Alasdair MacIntyre has argued convincingly that a public morality is precluded when “fact” is divorced from “value.” When this happens, says Maclntyre, we are left only with “modern emotivism” in which moral judgments are no more than statements of arbitrary personal preference. Harrington seems to be aware of this danger and yet finally cannot move beyond modern emotivism. “The serious atheistic humanist and the serious religious humanist are, I suspect, talking about the same reality in different languages. That those languages differ is not a minor detail to be forgotten by reducing antagonistic philosophies to a vague emotion. Such a promiscuous ecumenism is, of course, empty of content. But that common emotion does offer a common point of ending. It might be objected that this is not so, that in the term “political departure” is implied a path of action and moral reconstruction beyond emotivism. In his call for “transcendent” value Harrington not only implies but declares that there is such a path; it is the path of democratic socialism. As we shall see, however, his vision of democratic socialism is as transcendent, even supernatural perhaps, as the religion he has rejected. For those who do not share his religious faith in democratic socialism, emotivism is both the point of departure and the point of ending.

Michael Harrington’s is a poignant dilemma. He well knows that a “value-free” society is a dangerous illusion. He earnestly wants a society possessed of “a moral consciousness, a sense of right and wrong and of moral purpose.” But “we cannot go back to the gods of preliterate society or even to the God of our grandparents.” He is keenly aware of the legitimation crisis when no morally convincing answers can be given to the question of why we should obey the laws or care about our neighbors. Although he is determined to believe that all this is somehow the fault of capitalism, he readily acknowledges that the crisis is as acute in societies with different political economies (all existing socialisms he claims are “anti-socialism” or “pseudo-socialism.”) The religiously musical Harrington is thus left with the kind of modern religiousness described by Talcott Parsons. One critic puts it this way: “The Parsonian ‘sacred’ thus no longer has an icon, a cult, or a God. It is an unexplained protoplasmic sentiment, a hungry piety that may reach out and endow anything with a touch of divinity.” Beyond the icons, cults and gods of what is called religion, and also beyond the icons, cults and gods of all existent socialism, Michael Harrington reaches out to democratic socialism.

Harrington calls the faithful of other religions to a united front. “Therefore the present crisis demands something unprecedented: a united front of believers and atheists in search of a common transcendental which is neither supernatural nor anti-supernatural.” United fronts, dating back to the 1920s, have a long and, for the most part disappointing history. Harrington emphasizes that Marx himself criticized his followers who thought that alliances could be made only with those who had rejected religion. Marx believed that the achievement of a socialist society would simply obviate the need for religion, which is but the sigh of the masses under conditions of injustice. When it came to alliances — although Harrington does not mention this — Lenin too appreciated the need to reach out to “useful idiots,” including religious idiots, who would cooperate in their own undoing. Harrington’s call for a united front is issued at a time when capitalism’s “practical atheism” has precluded public religion: for all political purposes God has already died. Harrington asks others to join him in rescuing the values from the destruction of the religious facts. Those who, for inexplicable reasons, do not recognize that God has died can nonetheless join in the rescue operation. Harrington acknowledges that he is lonely and needs all the company he can get. “I am a democratic Marxist. The very existence of such an intellectual category is a shocking surprise to all but a handful of Americans.”

Assuring the Christian believers that they can become democratic Marxists, or at least democratic socialists, without giving up their faith, Harrington nonetheless devotes at least half his book to demonstrating why religious faith is not tenable in the modern world. He offers a small yet wide-ranging and frequently insightful history of Western ideas. While contending that capitalism has produced the practical atheism of our hedonistic society, however, he calls to give evidence intellectuals who had nothing against capitalism and quite a few, Marx included, who thought it was capitalism that kept religion in public business. With the aid of dialectical reason few things are impossible. One gets the impression that he was torn between writing a book in defense of his atheism, and issuing a compelling call for a united front with believers. Arguing that your prospective allies are either irrational or do not really believe what they say they believe is not the surest way to win friends and change history. As it is, Harrington makes a stronger case for abandoning religious faith than for embracing his vision of democratic socialism. Contrary to his obvious intent, Harrington may deepen the legitimation crisis by merely producing more atheistic hedonists.

For those who cannot give themselves to democratic socialism with full faith, however, Harrington offers a kind of half -way covenant. The minimal requirement for admission to the united front is that one be opposed to capitalism. Capitalism has produced “A system which has no way to value community. The corporate calculus counts a parking lot or an office building as ‘worth’ more than a church or a neighborhood, as long as it will yield a higher profit.” There may be an element of truth in the charge. Yet nowhere is there greater diversity or liveliness of community than in this society archetypical of “late capitalism.” To take his quite specific example, there was recently a battle in Detroit over General Motors plan to buy and tear down a church in order to build a new auto plant. Against the wishes of a declining and almost extinct ethnic enclave, the archdiocese wholeheartedly approved the plan. Currently St. Bartholomew’s in New York City wants to sell part of its property for the construction of an office building from which it hopes to realize enough money to sustain its ministry in the city. Are these instances of religion in collusion with the corporate calculus of capitalism, or do the archdiocese and St. Bartholomew’s have a more comprehensive understanding of community building; or is it just that the world is a great deal more complex than Michael Harrington suggests?

To be sure, those who want to move beyond the half-way covenant into the full communion of democratic socialism have their own complexities to deal with. For instance, the socialism have their own complexities to deal with. For instance, the socialism Harrington briefly evokes at the end of his book “would be systematically biased in favor of measures which accomplish functions on the most immediate, intimate level of social life (this is the Catholic principle of ‘subsidiarity’) as well as the libertarian socialist and anarchist principle of decentralization.” This does in fact sound like a bias toward freedom within a system based upon participation and community. With respect to practicalities, however, it would seem that the latter two virtues have clear priority over freedom. “There are endless examples of the practical application of these broad principles,” Harrington writes. “If participation and community are imperative, for instance, then wherever there is planning there must be public funds for anti-planning by the opponents of those in democratic control of the computers and experts.” If their control is truly democratic, one wonders (along with most socialists in power today) why anti-planning should not be considered anti-social. Lest things get out of hand, however, it should be noted that criticism will be funded, and therefore presumably controlled, by those who are the object of the criticism. Subsidiarity in this light appears as the dispersed effective functioning of centralized decision-making, which is a formula for the totalitarianism that Harrington has so consistently and correctly rejected.

Those considering a move beyond the half -way covenant might also consider whether Harrington’s proposed dispensation does not require a somewhat implausible change in the human condition. For instance, in addition to advancing community and participation, the new order will be much more egalitarian. If we redistribute wealth and reduce “the rewards of success and the punishments of failure,” the result will be a “new situation with freely chosen decisions to follow work strategies which would more adequately reward both [individuals] and the society as a whole.” Does Harrington know something about human behavior (dare we say human nature?) that the rest of us don’t? Surely it is more likely that an equalization of rewards and punishments, including monetary factors, would result in a not-so-new situation in which the “work strategy” elected by many is not to work and the sensation experienced by those who do work is one of deep injustice. Setting aside the money factor for a moment, is there any historical or anthropological evidence, is it psychologically conceivable, that people anywhere have worked except in relation to rewards and punishments, however defined? Of course what has been the case need not always be the case, and it is imaginable that, for example, Michael Harrington will be the next archbishop of New York. Harrington’s approach to what is possible is at best enigmatic. His proposals are utopian in the sense of “no place,” for he heartily affirms that what he suggests exists no place in the world as it is. The new dispensation that he vaguely depicts is not unattractive, but the principles that he clearly endorses are those of the socialist dispensations he consistently condemns. For those eager to move beyond the half-way covenant of anti-capitalism, it should give pause for thought. Those who think clearly might even reconsider their membership_ in the half-way covenant of anti-capitalism.

If we agree with Harrington that the public arena is to-day dangerously devoid of moral values, we might propose an alternative dispensation in which the value-bearing actors, notably religious institutions and beliefs, be given a freer rein in our public life. But Harrington excludes this alternative because religion is in inevitable decline. At least that is what he says most of the time. He devotes considerable attention to the state of contemporary theology and concludes, along with many others, that many theologians who claim to believe in God believe in nothing of the sort. By symbolicizing and demythologizing, traditional religious language as it is used now frequently connotes nothing that is unacceptable to the thoroughly secular humanist. It is, he says, religion without God, at least without the God that the nuns believed in when he was a boy in St. Louis. He even takes the impressive data of “Impact of Belief,” the Connecticut Mutual Life survey, and attempts to turn it on its head. It shows, he argues most unpersuasively, that strong religious belief is mainly in the South and embraced by women, old people and illiterates. It is a residual factor, he believes, because women entering the labor market will become more like the rest of us and even the South will finally succumb to the anti-religious influences of education and enculturation into modernity. In a strange statement for one of democratic sensibilities. Harrington declares it “a deplorable fact that groups like the Moral Majority can make a difference in American politics.” But not to worry, those who “take religion seriously” are a small and declining minority, so we are safe. Modernity means the discarding of religion, the future will by definition be modern, therefore the future will not be religious. Any data to the contrary is dust thrown in your eyes by the rear guard of obscurantism.

But dialectic is never that simple. Harrington also opines that in a more just socialist society there might be a revival of religion. The “end of social misery could give rise to an existential impulse to new forms of religious feeling.” When people can no longer blame their troubles on social injustice, they will still suffer from death and other unpleasantnesses, and might be inclined to entertain anew the wager regarding the reality of God. “There will, then, be space for a Pascalian sensibility in a Marxist world.” And Harrington is hopeful about what is happening already, especially among Catholics. Churches “can become more sectlike in the good sense of the term: more serious and radical about their faith. If that were to happen then churches sparsely filled with truly devout people might be a sign of religious growth much more significant than the packed houses of worship in the 1950s. That would also mean that the religious commitment to the consensus ideology I am trying to evoke here could become all the more profound.” Of course this new community of the devout might still claim to be devout also about God, but Harrington suggests that that need not be taken too seriously; it is an eccentricity that should not get in the way of ideological solidarity. Earlier in the book, Harrington notes Nietzsche’s belief that dogmatic Christianity is dead but “latent Christianity” is at hand in the form of socialism. Nietzsche thought that “the socialists are the new Jesuits of a godless world, seeing the people as means to an end.” Clearly, Harrington would not be unhappy were the Jesuits to become the new socialists of a godless world.

The Politics At God’s Funeral is, in sum, a most curious book. Michael Harrington’s history is worth taking. One should take along a reliable guide book, however, for this tour leader is frequently careless. Jurgen Moltmann becomes “a Catholic theologian.” An extensive discussion of Durkheim’s distinction between “mechanical” and “organic” societies exactly reverses the distinction throughout. (Yet more remarkable, in one of the appendices he takes up the subject again and this time gets the distinction right, making one wonder, here as elsewhere, whether the author read his own book.) At times Harrington takes the long view, noting that the task he envisions will be “the work of generations.” A few pages later, the recession of the seventies, now apparently past, is sure evidence of “the twilight of capitalism.” (That is also the title of an earlier Harrington book. In his view, the twilight of capitalism is always as evident as the dawn of socialism is elusive.) At one time we are told that culture is the key to social transformation. A little later: “So what will turn these principles . . . into the vital norms of a truly human — and therefore genuinely spiritual — society? Politics. Or nothing.”

The author modestly acknowledges that “the question I have posed is so formidable that my answer to it will be inadequate, sketchy, perhaps more unsatisfying to me than to my readers.” Perhaps, but at least to this reader it seems unlikely. Whether because he is so intelligently unsatisfied or so immensely pleased by his answer, Michael Harrington is,, according to the dust jacket, working on a book about the promise of democratic socialism. “’Tirra lirra,’ by the river/Sang Sir Lancelot.”


Richard John Neuhaus was a prominent Christian cleric (first as a Lutheran pastor and later as a Roman Catholic priest) and writer. Born in Canada, Neuhaus moved to the United States where he became a naturalized United States citizen. He was the founder and editor of the monthly journal First Things and the author of several books, including The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (1984), The Catholic Moment: The Paradox of the Church in the Postmodern World (1987), and Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth (2006).

Join the conversation in our Telegram Chat! You can also find us on Facebook, MeWe, Twitter, and Gab.